When growing up in Arizona, Kerri White never thought her career path would lead to being a skilled translator of mortgage document mumbo jumbo. Nor did she think it would entail personally taking on the power-hungry landlords, bankers and politicians of New York City. But at the barely-out-of-college age of 24, Kerri is doing all of these things, and she’s helping hundreds of New York’s most deserving dwellers in the process. As one of the youngest members of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), Kerri works directly with low-income renters to promote safe affordable housing all over New York. A social activist at heart, Kerri talks about how an issue she hardly knew existed now drives her everyday life.
When you were at Northern Arizona University, what sort of work did you think you might get into after college?
I wasn’t completely sure. For a long time I’ve wanted to do some kind of organizing work. Working with communities doing community development – working with people in their communities to bring about social change.
When and why did you decide to get involved with UHAB?
I kind of fell into UHAB because I wanted to move to New York City and I was looking for some sort of this community work. I found this job posting for a tenant organizer. Coming from Arizona where most people are owners, to New York where almost everyone’s a renter, I really didn’t have a lot of understanding about that, but I just took the job to see what it was about. Try it out. Now I love it.
Before working at UHAB, were you very aware of the issue of affordable housing?
No, not really. You hear about it and you realize it’s probably an issue. But I really didn’t pay attention to it very much. I paid more attention to women’s issues, gay rights – those kinds of movements.
Have you always been involved with justice movements?
Yeah, even when I was younger. In high school I was interested in social justice and tried to keep up on that. I participated in protests, rallies, or whatever I could to try to bring about positive change.
Why do you think a group like UHAB needs to exist in the first place?
With the way the real estate business works, a lot of times affordable housing gets ignored and no one really pays attention when it starts to deteriorate and people are living in poor conditions. The people who live in those buildings, that’s their home. That’s where they live. That’s where they raise their kids. That’s their community. And they should be able to have a voice in what goes on in their building.
So what is your official job title and what’s a normal workday like in the life of Kerri White?
My official title is Tenant Organizer. The biggest thing I do is I go to tenant meetings. I have meetings two to three nights a week, sometimes four. I help people start meeting and talk about what we can do in this specific building, whether it’s put pressure on the landlord, put pressure on the bank. However we can to make conditions better.
Wow, since working at UHAB you must have learned a lot about the bureaucratic system of getting things done in New York?
It can be pretty ridiculous sometimes. Just housing in general. The way documents are set up, like mortgage documents have to be the most confusing things to read.
Has there been a particular moment since working at UHAB where you thought, “Wow, I’m really glad I work here and am part of this”?
One of the striking moments I can think of was when we were at a foreclosure auction for this building that we’d been working on. We were able to bring in a good partner for the tenants to work with that promised to come in, restore the housing and fix it up, make conditions better and keep people in the building. So we brought probably 30, 40 tenants to this auction. There’s some people who are bidding for the housing that we don’t want, and we’re trying to be quiet because we’re gonna get kicked out if we’re too loud. But in the end, we won – all the buildings went to the group the tenants wanted. The tenants just ran out of the courtroom and started dancing in the hallway. They were so happy! Everyone was just yelling and taking pictures because they were so happy that they were going to get some relief in their housing.
What sets what you’re doing apart from similar organizations? And what do you think makes UHAB so successful?
UHAB is definitely not the only group that does these kinds of things. As far as the co-op side of UHAB, I feel like that is a very innovative idea and there aren’t actually that many people who are doing this. What makes the co-op model so important is that when you put that in tenants’ hands, when tenants have the ability to make those choices, then that makes the buildings permanently affordable. And I feel like what makes the tenant organizing group so successful is working with people. We’re not just advocating without having any contact with the people we’re advocating for.
To leave a final thought for readers, why should people care about this issue of affordable housing?
I think there’s other issues that are sexier, that sound more interesting and fun, but housing is so important. You don’t think about it, but that is where people live every day. That’s where your soul resides, you know? I feel like a lot of the other social justice issues that people care about, a lot of it boils down to housing and that makes a big impact. Personally, and I think many people would agree, I feel like housing is a right. People have a right to have a place to live that’s decent.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success and the success of UHAB?
You can visit UHAB’s website (UHAB.org). If people are interested in donating or just learning more about what UHAB does, you can go through there. Besides that, just learn about the affordable housing programs and laws in your city and support candidates who support affordable housing or are trying to make housing better. Push banks to make better decisions. Learn more about housing and what’s going on.